Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Michelet's plunge into the crowd

Michelet published his translation of Vico’s New Science, which gave him a key to the meaning of revolution, in 1827, three years before the revolution of 1830. Recall this was the year, as well, that Raphael made his pact with the wild ass’s skin. In his introductory discourse to Vico’s work, Michelet gave his own interpretation of the long cycles that organize Viconian universal history, and in so doing foretold his own work as a historian and mythographer. The great and self-conscious mythographies, like The Sea, or The People, or Woman, or most famously, The Witch, are cast in the heroic mode on the modern scale. Vico, Michelet explains, took it that in the infancy of the world – the world of the Cyclops, the pre-homeric world - a name such as Hercules and the concept of the hero are not completely separated. Vico, in Michelet’s reading, is doing something like what we see in Plato’s Cratylus, where the divine root of the word is a key to the crowd of generalizations to which it falls heir, a crowd that, like Dionysian bacchantes, tear out bits of meaning for themselves. In Michelet’s mythographic work, the crowd is oceanic, and the word of some general class – women, the people – will stand in for a type of giant. A new type of giant, the modern giant.

The discovery of Vico was Michelet’s key to escaping the imprisoning notion of the positivists that history is simply a mechanical progress, a view that allowed the positivists to take a deflationary view of revolution. For the positivists, there are always roundabouts, benevolent and rational policies, that render revolution obsolete. Taking Vico as his guide allowed Michelet to upset the equivalence between revolution and some benevolent set of alternative rational policies. Rather, in the heart of revolution is a force that no mechanical progress would predict or could divert. It is the force of the great cycles of history, breaking through the dead level of the mental tone of a civilization. For, in Michelet’s words, barbarism does not only apply to the commencement of society, but to its end. The second barbarism marks the fall of a social order, which is always in the service of the “two natural laws” of history that Michelet claims to pull out of Vico: “those who can’t govern themselves, will have to obey” and “the empire of the world is to the best”. The best – the meilleur – are not the morally best, but those who understand how to govern. Thus, the last period of a civilization is marked by the paradoxical application of those laws: “One hundred times more barbarian in the last period of civilization than they were in their infancy! The first barbarism was natural, the second is made of reflection. The former was ferocious, but generous; an enemy could flee or defend himself; the latter, not less cruel, is more perfidious and cowardly: it is in embracing that they love to strike. Thus don’t fool yourself: you see a crowd of bodies, but if you are searching for human souls, the solitude is profound; these are nothing but savage beasts.” (XL)

In 1842, when Michelet published The People, he had begun to give up the Christian belief that some God operated above history, insuring that the great cycles play themselves out. Barthes, in his book on Michelet, contrasts two modes of representation in Michelet: the survol, that is, the overflight, and the plunge. The plunge is both a method and a physical exercise – the water cure, or the plunge into a mudbath, where Michelet cured himself of his political and hypochronical complaints in 1854. Barthes too quickly, I think, identifies the survol with Michelet, connecting the men, the events, nature and history, when I believe the movement is not only towards the hypertrophy of Michelet’s egotism, but towards a populist politics. The plunge – as in plunging into the ocean – is the experiential mode of The People, as Michelet makes clear in the introductory letter to Quinet. Barthes is right to capture the moment of egotistic identification, for Michelet’s People are, as it were, emblematized in Michelet’s life – one in which, as he says, he worked with his hands, not only in ‘making books’, but in “composing them materially” – “I assembled letters before assembling ideas, I am not ignorant of the melancholy of the atelier, the boredom of long hours.” (58) Michelet was the son of a typesetter and worked in the family printshop. However, this plunge into the self’s history is the double of another plunge, which is also associated with the book: “When the progress of my History led me to occupy myself with contemporary questions, and I cast my eyes upon the books in which these questions were treated, I confess that I was surprised to discover them almost all in contradiction with my memories. Then I closed my books and I re-placed myself among the people as much as was possible; the solitary writer replunged into the crowd, he heard the noises, noted the voices.” (58)

And what did he note? The People is a sort of mixture of fieldwork, philosophy and historical insights, and bears some relationship with the journalistic sociology of those who explored the popular sectors for the new newspapers, or who wrote from the heart of those sectors. In many respects it is like Engels The Situation of the Laboring Class in England, although Michelet was never as ‘cool’ as Engels – Engels would not have written a chapter entitled : Du servage et de la haine.

It is in that first chapter that Michelet shows his ability to absorb the actual tendencies at work around him. Here he is on the factory system:

“Everyone who does not know how to do anything comes to offer himself to the manufacturer to serve the machines. The more they come, the more wages drop, the more they are miserable. On the other side, the merchandise, fabricated thus at a low price, descends to the reach of the poor, in such a way that the misery of the worker-machine diminishes somewhat the misery of workers and peasants, who are probably seventy times more numerous.” (96)

As in Engels, the privileged example is the manufacture of clothing. Michelet goes further than the facts of the price system, noticing that the changes in the clothing of the people are a moral fact, with which the economic fact is intrinsically interwoven. “One sees then what an immense and powerful consumer the people are, when they participate. The shops were emptied at one blow.” (97)

This economic and moral fact necessarily imposes politically on everyday life: :The machine, which seems to be an aristocratic force by the centralization of capital, is actually a powerful agent of democratic progress.” How? Michelet is not talking in quantitative terms, as an economist, but in qualitative terms, as an ethnographer. For what is the use value of a dress? One of its uses, instilled for millennia by way of sumptuary laws, was to distinguish between classes. What is happening is that this difference of appearance can no longer simply be assumed: “These are not simply physical ameliorations, it is a progress of the populace in the exterior and in appearance, on which people judge each other; it is, so to speak, visible equality.”

But there are counter-tendencies in tendencies, currents in currents. There are maelstroms. The change here comes at the price of subjecting the worker-machine to a systematic abasement. “The head turns and the heart contracts when, for the first time, one entes one of these feerique houses where the iron and the brass, polished, blinding, seem to go of themselves, have the air of things that think and will, while man, pale and feeble, is the humble servant of these steel giants.” (98)

Here is laid out a peculiarly Cartesian nightmare, one which constricted more than one heart in the nineteenth century. When Ruskin makes this his cause, his red-white objection to industrialization, he runs his objection in the opposite way than Michelet – he moves from the abjection produced by the machines to the abjection produced by their products. For Ruskin, the embourgeoisification of the people is a huge loss, not a gain. It is a loss of, for instance, the system that once put together cottage made clothing and fairs, traded for a false equality that will, inevitably, bleed to death the traditional society of the vast majority.

The issues here are confused who look for clear lines between the reactionary and the revolutionary, or the backwards looking and the progressive.

However, to return to the Michelet and Engels – there is one point in which they compliment each other as, so to speak, anthropologists of the great transformation. That is in the world of discipline enforced in the ‘fairy houses” where the steel giants do the thinking. In one section of The Position of the Working Class in England, Engels reproduces the rules in force at one of the factories in Manchester (which no doubt are reflected in other factories). Among them is this one: “Every worker who speaks to another or who is found singing or whistling will be fined six shillings.” (Engels 1892, 399)

Light is cast on the meaning of this prohibition by Michelet, who takes up the history of the machine-worker with the example of the tisserand – the weaver. The condition of the two are distinguished because the latter has the time to dream: It happens in manual work that follows our impulsion that our intimate thought, identifying with the work, sets it to the thought’s steps, and that the inert instrument to which one gives movement, far from being an obstacle to spiritual movement, becomes the aid and the companion. The mystical weavers of the middle ages were celebrated under the name Lollards beause, in fact, in working they lullabied, sant in a low voice, or at least mentally, some nurse’s song. The rhythm of the shuttle, pushed down and pulled up in four four time, is associated with the rhythm of the heart. In the evening there was often found that with the weaving of the cloth there was also woven, in the same numbers, a hymn, a complaint.” (99)

Monday, February 21, 2011

the philosophy of the diary

How do we – this we, this other and me, the writer, this shadowing and secret sharing editorial we! – gather our data about the formation of character under capitalism? What does ‘under capitalism” even mean?

One can imagine a computer, being steadily fed data concerning the everyday habits of the population that existed ‘under capitalism” for two hundred to three hundred years, storing it and collating it, tying, a cybernetic Varuna, person to person in the coils of its 0 and 1, from which would emerge, at some point, a hermeneutic, a heuristic, a set of axioms, or maybe simply a surrender to the ceaseless flow of info for its own sake.

One can imagine an economist making a model of what the character should be.

One can imagine a novelist tracing the events in some fictitious character’s life that are somehow meant to be typical.

Or one can keep a diary and make penetrating generalizations that go outward towards the world and inward towards one’s own peculiarities, a mutual articulation that is always perched in the doubtful state between the outward and inward, like Raphael’s hat. The diary keeper’s entries share some formal characteristics with the accountant’s – both rely on the spread sheet principle that objectifies time, both “account” – a word which, according to the OED, has its root in the Latin computare, which has a further root in putare, pruning trees or ‘cleaning”, purifying. Although putare could also mean counting. Let’s quote Girard Minaud, in La comptabilite a Rome: essai d’histoire economique…, quoting Emile Benveniste here:

Emile Beveniste considered that one ought to being with the technical sense of putare: “In following (from the base to the top) the count, to detach successively the articles which have been verified. From this, ‘to verify, purify””. This image can be understood by seeing the pruner begin his work from the lowest branches for progressing towards the height of the tree and attaining its summa. The procedure explains why the summa designated, for the ancients, what is called the “total” today, but also the ‘sum’. E. Benveniste has in effect taken care to specify, concerning addition: “In the classical civilizations this operation is conducted according to a different model than our own. One made the count of numbers superposed on one another not, as with us, from the highest to the lowest, but from the lowest to the highest, until attaining what they called the summa, that is to say, the superior number.” (169)

The tree, the accountant, the diarist and the computer – a root connects them all, and an inversion marks a history.

But of course the computer and the accountant have specialized in a certain branch of objectivity, while the diarist, the clerk of literature, prefers not to.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

the thread

“The first distinction I would make is between two major classes of line,
which I shall call threads and traces. By no means all lines fall into either
category, but perhaps the majority do, and they will be of most importance
for my argument. A thread is a filament of some kind, which may
be entangled with other threads or suspended between points in threedimensional
space. At a relatively microscopic level threads have surfaces;
however, they are not drawn on surfaces.” – Tim Ingold, Lines: a brief history, 41

The God Varuna, for example, has the magical power to tie people at a distance by ties as magic as all sovereignty in these [indo-european] civilizations. Varuna is always omnivoyant, all powerful and a ‘binder’ by that very magic. Indra, himself, ties by the atmosphere that is his laces and his thread. Varuna acts like a binder with his passive reticulation, Indra proceeds by aggressive acts of imprisonment.” – Christian Werckele, “The power of the ephemeral and the network of the invisible”.

There are three themes that I should clarify here, should have clarified by now.
One is that the character of man or woman under capitalism is always in some relationship, whether voluntary or involuntary, knowing or unknowing, with the mythic rational economic agent, with homo oeconomicus. Though first explicitly given a name and a habitation in the golden years of mathematical economics, when the models were carved out of perfect and perfectly fictitious models of marketplaces structured by the irresistible attraction of an equilibrium between supply and demand, the myth has roamed far, in the century since the 1890s, among the policy papers, economics textbooks, legal codes, and in the popular mindset. The hero of economic rationality has even voyaged to all the disciplines and founded colonies there.

A second theme, which may seem unrelated (o bind these themes, great stringer of men!) is an opposing tug on the formation of character under capitalism. This is the tug of alienation. I take this theme primarily from Marx, not only because I think his construction of alienation in the 1840s supplies us with a perfect tool for understanding why capitalism is peculiarly oppressive, but also because, in Capital, he produced a picture of capitalist society that allows us to do nuance: for alienation varies according to the level in which the economic agent is placed. The alienation of the producers has taken the greatest share of attention, but the level of the producers, if we trust the (Engels edited) second and third books of Capital, is different from the level of the agents of circulation. One of my hypotheses is that the agents of circulation, which have become much more numerous than the producers in the developed economies, suffer from a different form of alienation, one that incorporates not only the alienation of the assembly line worker but, as well, the alienation that arises from the remove from production. Although Marx does not predict that the agents of circulation will become preponderant as the industrial system of production evolves, one can credibly draw on Marx’s insights to understand this story.

Foregrounded in this network of speculation, I want to look at a certain lineage within modernity, which inherited the reticular wisdom of the moralistes of the early modern period and transformed it into the clerk’s Dao. The clerks of literature, the clerks of the arts, figure here both as the makers of characters in which the stress and Sturm of capitalism is registered and as characters themselves. Indra’s net, here, becomes James’ In the Cage.

And then the third theme. For in tracing out these tendencies, or more frankly, creating this Begriffsroman, where concepts are the plot elements, I am struck by how the great theoreticians of modernization (Marx, Simmel, Weber, Foucault, etc.) have invested the story with an absolute sweep. The story is that of the iron cage – cages again! – in which all forms of archaic economic activity are ruined and buried under the system of economic rationality, until rationality becomes synonymous with self-advantage. The narrative, here, is epic, but I think it leaves out everyday life, that unpurged primitive remnant. When we plunge into the worlds of work or home, when we look at the now endless media net in which we all struggle, when, in short, we plunge into the negotium and otium, the public sphere and the private, we find the capillary work of earlier forms of exchange and reciprocity still as active as ever. They appear now as the favor you do a friend, now as the barbecue cookout, now as the shared task, now as mental illness and night sweats – they appear all over the place, barter and gift, earmarked money and piggy banks. All the archaic forms that bow to homo economicus return, secondary elaborations that spring up even in the most economically ‘rational’ institutions. This does not seem to me to be an accident, a feature of incomplete modernization, but the persistent, human supplement. The collective vision of the alienated clerks is of a world in which that supplement is extinguished.

These are my threads.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

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